Marriage grabs all the headlines when it comes to so-called “gay rights” in the mainstream media. It’s understandable. Relationships matter. Legally sanctioned relationships confer protections, rights, responsibilities, benefits, etc. They connect us deeply and that’s why the symbolic warfare around them is so intense.

What doesn’t get covered nearly often enough is the jobs agenda of the equality movement. Can you remember any story in a major Tennessee newspaper about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the last year? But there are some real opportunities to connect with moderate and even conservative Tennesseans on workplace equality.

Jobs are #1 for Tennesseans: The Tennessee Newspaper Network hired Mason-Dixon to conduct a poll on the priorities of the state’s voters. The number one priority is jobs/economy. Only one percent of those responding saw family values, “gay rights,” and the like as the most important issue. Because “gay rights” is so often defined as marriage, the majority of Tennesseans are going to continue either to oppose “gay rights” or to place our equality really far down the scale.

Dead letter until the courts get involved: Maybe it’s just my opinion, but marriage equality is a dead letter in Tennessee until the courts get involved. We’ve got a state statute and a constitutional amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman. Given the proclivity of our state’s GLBT community to send more money out of state to fight for equality than to invest it in Tennessee’s fight, I don’t see how it would be possible to raise enough PAC money and organize to repeal the constitutional amendment and the statute.

Straight voters and elected officials see a distinction: When given the opportunity, many straight voters and elected officials who may not support (or publicly support) marriage equality can support workplace protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. When TEP was working on the Metro Nashville non-discrimination ordinance, our opponents tried to make the issue about marriage. They even put stick figures holding hands on the stickers they wore into the Council hearings on the bill. But Council Members and the majority of the citizens in Nashville didn’t buy it.

In fact, the justification for job protections rolls easily off the tongue. Consider what Memphis City Council Member Janis Fullilove said in an interview about the Memphis non-discrimination ordinance: “Every person has a right to make a living for his or her family or for themselves.” We think that’s a phrase that needs to roll off the tongues of more elected officials in Tennessee. We look forward to giving them that opportunity as we pursue more non-discrimination measures around the state.

Economic Development and Workplace Equality: Changing the law at the local, state, and federal levels to enshrine workplace protections is essential to any jobs agenda worth its salt, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Until we can get everyone in Tennessee and throughout the country covered, the GLBT community should take more of an interest in the economic development of our state. By recruiting Volkwagen to Chattanooga, Governor Bredesen may have done more for equality in Southeast Tennesssee than anyone ever has. Volkswagen scores a 100% on the Human Rights Campaign’s 2010 Corporate Equality Index. Good paying jobs where you can be yourself and have benefits for your family are nothing short of a God-send in this very socially conservative part of Tennessee. Attracting these kinds of companies to Tennessee will help pave the way for lasting structural equality in our state.

A jobs agenda can be a winning equality agenda for Tennessee.